The Detroit Lions have held three weeks worth of training camp practice and hosted the New York Giants in their opening preseason game, beating them 21-16. Jeremy Reisman and I (Erik Schlitt) have been in attendance for every snap—save one day for me when I was on dad duty—and we are ready to use the knowledge we have obtained to update our projections for the Lions’ 53-man roster.
While several players are coming off solid performances in game action, it’s important to keep in mind that there were 13 other practices that coaches will be using to make their player evaluations, and we will be doing the same.
Note: An asterisk (*) denotes the player is a rookie.
Nate Sudfeld Adrian Martinez*
NFI list: Hendon Hooker*
Changes from pre-training camp projection: Bridgewater IN, Sudfeld OUT
Jeremy: The conversation at quarterback has completely changed. The addition of Bridgewater has shifted what looked like a pretty straightforward quarterback situation into a philosophical debate on roster construction. I’m sure we both agree that while the team says there’s a QB2 competition with Bridgewater and Sudfeld, that isn’t really true. Bridgewater is a better, more proven quarterback that coach Dan Campbell loves.
So, instead, the discussion is whether Sudfeld is worth a spot as QB3—Martinez is not in this conversation and Campbell made that quite clear. It’s worth noting it was the Lions who proposed the now-adopted rule that a team can carry a third emergency game-day quarterback who doesn’t count against the active list but must be on the 53-man roster. So... do the Lions take advantage of it?
Erik: If you would have asked me this question a week ago, I might have said yes, but since the Bridgewater news broke, Sudfeld has looked like he is playing quarterback while simultaneously looking over his shoulder. He looked unsettled in joint practices and was a mess at times during the game—completing 15 of 28 passing attempts, including throwing two interceptions—and the narrative surrounding him has completely shifted.
Now, Sudfeld will likely have two more games to right the ship, but for now, he seems like he will be on the outside looking in.
Running back (5)
Jason Cabinda (FB)
Mohamed Ibrahim* Devine Ozigbo Benny Snell
Changes: Justin Jackson retires, Jefferson IN
Erik: The surprising news of Jackson retiring has really thrown this position battle in a tizzy. Add in the fact that Reynolds and Jefferson are (presumably) dealing with injuries and my confidence level here in our final picks is not great.
I was hesitant to include Jefferson above and contemplated using his spot on another position group, but you convinced me they will probably want to keep four running backs. So, can you expand on that for the readers?
Jeremy: There are a few reasons I favor keeping four true running backs, but the first reason is what you already mentioned: injury. Running back has one of the highest injury rates in the league, as evidenced by three of these above names currently battling through something.
Additionally, this is a position group ripe for special teams contributors. Craig Reynolds’ skills on special teams are well documented, and we’ve both noticed Jefferson make strides there. Obviously, both of those guys need to get healthy in a hurry, but last we heard, neither injuries were considered serious.
Wide receiver (6)
Amon-Ra St. Brown
Denzel Mims Trinity Benson Maurice Alexander Chase Cota* Trey Quinn
Suspended list: Jameson Williams
Changes: Drummond IN
Jeremy: This is another position battle that feels very unsettled, as Antoine Green, Dylan Drummond, and Chase Cota all had solid preseason games—and Maurice Alexander had one of the best punt return touchdowns I’ve seen in the past decade.
I think Drummond is safely in right now because he just keeps stacking day after day after day, but I’m a little less high on Green. What have you liked about him so far?
Erik: I really liked what I saw from him in camp the first few days, showing body control and fluidity through his breaks. While he certainly took a step back after a few rough outings, I thought he rebounded nicely in the game against the Giants. His ability to control his speed, catch the ball in stride, then maximize yards after catch by immediately turning it upfield are all good signs for his development. Add in the fact that he is with the starters on kick and punt return, while also contributing in kick coverage and I think we are starting to see his range of contributing roles expand. If he continues this trend of slow, steady development, he could be a contributor in Week 1 of the regular season.
Tight end (3)
Darrell Daniels Daniel Helm
IR: Shane Zylstra
Erik: Not much debate here as I think the writing was on the wall once the significance of Zystra’s injury was revealed. There’s a clear top three amongst this group and they’ll each play a role this season.
Jeremy: Yep, and after James Mitchell’s strong showing in the preseason opener, I don’t think either of the new additions have much of a chance at working their way into the discussion.
Offensive line (8)
Matt Nelson Kayode Awosika Darrin Paulo Obinna Eze Max Pircher Conor Galvin* Ryan Swoboda* Brad Cecil* Bobby Hart
Changes: Ifedi IN, Nelson OUT, Pierschbacher released with an injury settlement
IR: Ross Pierschbacher (expected)
Jeremy: Neither of us feels great about only keeping eight offensive linemen, but... who among this group of cuts has justified a roster spot? I don’t think the Lions are just going to keep nine offensive linemen to hit a quota. Someone has to earn the job, and sadly, no one has.
And at this point, I think Matt Nelson has played his way off the roster. The Lions brought in veteran Germain Ifedi to compete for that job, and I think at this point he’s outplayed him. Ifedi has been a bit of a journeyman and he hasn’t been great at his last destinations, but I think he’s both more experienced and better than Nelson.
If we were to keep a ninth, who would it have been?
Erik: Nelson. But only based on how the Lions' coaching staff continues to use him. Typically he is the first tackle up if they need a third, they’re also repping him on both the left and right sides, and there is a history with him and this coaching staff.
But at the end of the day, I think you hit the nail on the head. He’s been outplayed, has looked straight bad at times, and this staff isn’t in the business of keeping players just to meet a quota.
Interior defensive line (4)
Benito Jones Christian Covington Cory Durden* Chris Smith*
Changes: Onwuzurike is no longer on PUP, Covington OUT
Erik: The top three defensive tackles appear locked in but the DT4 position seems open at this time. Both Onwuzurike and Jones looked sharp against the Giants, but it’s hard to overlook the investment the coaches and front office have made in Onwuzurike—which is why he gets the nod for me.
Onwuzurike has slowly been seeing his snaps increase as camp has rolled on, and I think most beat writers are leaning toward him grabbing this spot, but Jeremy, can Jones prove us all wrong and hold him off?
Jeremy: I’m not considering this battle over. It’s worth noting that Jones is still mostly repping ahead of Onwuzurike, so Levi still has some work to do. That said, if Onwuzurike continues to show promise like he did on Friday, the Lions will have no choice but to bank on Onwuzurike’s future over Jones.
Jeremy: This is left unchanged, but I maintain that with the way they’re using James Houston—and the way they talk about his inconsistencies—I truly believe him and Julian Okwara are in a roster battle that has yet to have been settled. And with Okwara tallying a three-sack game—albeit against reserve Giants offensive linemen—he’s at least making this a conversation.
How close do you think this battle is?
Erik: Okwara is surely going to make the coaches think a bit harder, but they will also want to know where this player has been through the first three weeks of camp. While Houston hasn’t been lighting camp on fire either, he at least has proof of concept from what he accomplished last season.
Unless Houston is traded, I feel confident that he will make this roster as a pass rushing specialist. But just because I expect Houston to make the 53, Okwara should still have a shot to beat out another player for a spot on the roster, potentially a depth linebacker or defensive back.
Changes: Pittman back IN
Erik: Following the NFL draft, we were sold Pittman was making the roster based on previous years' roster constructions keeping six off-the-ball linebackers. Then, ahead of training camp, we pulled him out of our projection, thinking the Lions might go another direction. Now, three weeks later, we’re boomeranging him back on the roster in this projection.
Pittman is a terrific special teamer and that carries some weight here, but he is also one of the last players we included as “in,” so Jeremy, how confident are you that he sticks around this time?
Jeremy: Not very. With this improved defensive roster, players will have to show some value beyond special teams to stick around. Pittman is an awesome guy, and brings a little versatility with his ability to play on the edge or off-ball, but I thought he really struggled on Friday night. He’s essentially my Player 53 right now.
Erik: I am anticipating a few more Pittman vs. Julian Okwara conversations over the next few weeks.
Outside cornerback (4)
Steven Gilmore* Khalil Dorsey Colby Richardson
PUP: Emmanuel Moseley
IR: Jarren Williams
Changes: Moseley on PUP
Jeremy: The top four here seem pretty safe. Amongst our three cuts, I think Steven Gilmore has the best chance of sneaking his way onto the roster, but he still has a long way to go here.
I think the more interesting conversation here is Emmanuel Moseley. Starting the season reserve/PUP would be a pretty big disappointment, seeing as he would miss at least four games of the season.
At this point, we don’t really have any sort of indication of how close Moseley is after his reported “clean-up” surgery, so I won’t ask you your thoughts on him potentially coming back before the season starts. The bigger question here is: how comfortable are you with these four being the only outside corners available in Week 1? Is this a position they could add to on the waiver wire?
Erik: Corner is an incredibly hard position to acquire outside of the early offseason, and I’m not sure coaches would view any player that is cut as an upgrade over Harris or Thomas. Coaches love Harris (*pauses for a deep sigh from readers*) and Thomas could end up as outside CB3 by the time camp is done. So, while scouts will surely be looking at the wire, I’m not expecting anyone to come in and break into the lineup.
Ifeatu Melifonwu Brady Breeze Brandon Joseph*
Changes: Smith IN, Melifonwu OUT
Erik: One reason we are merging the conversations between nickel and safety is that most of the players who are playing nickel are also capable of playing at another spot, including Gardner-Johnson getting a lot of run at safety. And if you listen to coach Dan Campbell discuss Gardner-Johnson’s value, you’ll hear some hints that they may keep him there more than originally planned (thus our shifting of spots for him).
“Well, (Gardner-Johnson’s) a highly instinctive player,” Campbell said during joint practices. “I think sometimes this may get lost with C.J. He’s an excellent communicator as well, excellent communicator. So, you just kind of see the growth of he and Kerby (Joseph) together and I believe it’s elevating Kerby’s game as well. So, I believe you potentially have a couple of dynamic safeties back there that have versatility, so that’s what we like about having him back there and knowing he can play nickel certainly.”
But at the end of the day, rounding out this group became another conversation where we debate Lucas vs. Smith vs. Melifonwu.
Jeremy: It’s really one of the toughest conversations we have every time. Typically, we’re just talking about Smith vs. Lucas, but Melifonwu has dropped into the conversation due to some more injury concerns and just average play on the field. Admittedly, Melifonwu is getting better on special teams, but Saivion is great at it and his grittiness is easy to see when he’s out there at safety.
I thought Lucas struggled a bit a nickel on Friday night, but both he and Smith ranked atop the PFF leaderboard when it came to special teams grades. Go on, tell the people why they’re sleeping on Lucas.
Erik: I was a bit worried about Lucas when he was repping exclusively on the outside early in camp, but when he shifted inside, I think it put all his best attributes on display. The nickel spot is going to be a huge catalyst for the Lions' scheme, and over the last week, I believe Lucas has really been able to show his value.
Lucas is highly cerebral and he understands Glenn’s scheme to a tee. His ability to communicate assignments pre-snap, then locate and make plays on the ball during the play is improved from last season. Add in the fact that he has also elevated his play on special teams—including starting roles on punt return/coverage—gives him an even bigger range of contributions, and in turn, a better shot at making the roster.
Special teams (3)
Jack Fox (P)
Scott Daly (LS)
Riley Patterson (K)
Parker Romo (K)
Changes: Patterson IN, Romo OUT, McQuaide released
Jeremy: Patterson and Romo have been neck-and-neck when it comes to training camp accuracy. But the way this coaching staff talks about Patterson tells me they really favor him.
“We all know that Riley, there’s a steadiness about him, and I would say this about Riley, one of the things that we’ve noticed that’s really shown up from two years ago when we kind of parted ways is he has a stronger leg as it pertains to kickoffs.”
And here’s special teams coordinator Dave Fipp:
“The truth is he’s really coming along, and his leg strength’s really increased. He looks really good in the training camp, so I’m really excited about him.”
They have said some nice things about Romo, but it’s almost always qualified with “he still needs to develop” or something along those lines. So unless Patterson falls apart in the last couple weeks of camp, I think this is his job to lose.
Is that your read on the situation, too?
Erik: Yup. I liked Patterson a lot last season and now with a year under his belt—including making some big kicks in the playoffs—I think he should have the edge for a spot on the roster right now.